Smart? Oh, please!

There was a time when smart meant intelligent people. But it’s now being used to promote meaningless drivel. Everything is now smart – from phones to cars to cards to electricity grids to washing machines. Put in some obscure bit of machine logic into a system or a device and we suddenly have miraculous machines with brains. The smartphone still lies there, waiting for your touch to do just about everything. But it has now morphed into a gadget that people lust after. Like the cliched dumb beauty without brains, all it has is sleek contours and a sexy interface. But it cannot tell pesky telemarketers to buzz off. Or go into silent mode automatically during a meeting. Or stop disturbing you when you’re trying to think. For doing all that you have to set it into specific modes, or download apps for just about every little benefit. From learning how to tie your shoelaces to navigating the city. It’s another matter altogether that any useful feature usually consumes the battery faster than a Woot sale. Like wi-fi or GPS navigation. Carrying a smartphone only makes you look smart. Just like arriving at a party with a beauty draped over your arm draws attention, but to sustain interest, you have to be able to make some conversation. Or move like a tornado on the dance floor.

IBM has now made ‘smart’ the focal point of its campaign. From smart cities – what are these, pray? Cities full of warm, interesting and considerate people? Far from it. All it means that there are a few million sensors that do specific dumb functions. In the old days, we used to have guys going around to switch on street lamps at dusk. Now you have sensors that sense the failing light and switch the lamps on automatically. Or sensors that open up the valves in the city’s water supply to send out more water. It’s an impressive technical achievement. But to label it smart is to take a gurgling one-year-old and pretend he’s Einstein.

Being in advertising, I plead guilty. How do you come up with a description of a feature that people can understand and relate to with their 2000 word vocabulary? The realm of what people know and are impressed by is pitifully narrow. It’s like the teenager using ‘awesome’ for everything from the latest brand of shoes to lipstick to bags to movies to pizza. Or ‘gross’ and ‘eww’ for everything undesirable. So you either have the highly technical descriptions that nobody understands, except for the scientists who created them – AMOLED displays or the Bravia engine, for example. Or, you have to hand it to Apple to reach into a high school textbook that labelled the diagram for the inside of the eye and pick out the retina for its own use. Why didn’t they use the cornea or the iris? Well, I suspect that some other tech company soon will, to differentiate its own offering from that of Apple.